ISTANBUL // A trial of nearly 200 current and retired soldiers, including former army generals, accused of plotting to bring down the Turkish government got under way yesterday with the main suspect accusing the prosecution of fabricating evidence by using "copy and paste".
The trial is seen as the latest showdown in the power struggle between Turkey's religiously conservative government and the strictly secularist armed forces.
Three judges from an Istanbul court began hearing the case against 196 suspects, among them former members of the general staff in Ankara and other high-ranking officers, who are accused of planning a coup to topple the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, in 2003, only months after his Justice and Development party, or AKP, had come to power in November 2002.
Because of the big number of suspects, the Sledgehammer trial is being held in a special courtroom on the grounds of a prison in Silivri, a town on the Sea of Marmara west of Istanbul. The courtroom was purpose-built a few years ago for a trial against another group of suspected coup-plotters of a right-wing organisation called Ergenekon, which is still ongoing.
The prosecution says the plotters prepared a coup plan code-named Balyoz, or Sledgehammer, that involved blowing up mosques in Istanbul and bringing down a Turkish fighter jet over the Aegean with the aim of subsequently blaming Greece and using the heightened tensions to justify the takeover. The allegations also include planned assassinations of Christian and Jewish leaders. If convicted, the suspects face up to 20 years in prison.
Coming after a series of judicial procedures against several other groups of suspected coup-plotters in recent years, the Sledgehammer trial is seen as a landmark in the ongoing confrontation between the Erdogan government and the military. The generals regard themselves as the guardians of the secular republic and are concerned that Mr Erdogan is trying to turn the country into an Islamist state. The armed forces have pushed four governments from power since 1960 and openly threatened to unseat Mr Erdogan only three years ago.
Umit Kardas, a former military judge, speaking about the Sledgehammer trial yesterday, said: "This is important, because high-ranking officers like that have never had to stand trial up to now." He said the allegations against the suspects were serious. "The AKP came to power in 2002, and beginning with 2003, we have a real whirlwind of coup preparations," Mr Kardas said in reference to Sledgehammer and similar suspected plots. "That shows that Turkish democracy has been under threat."
The suspected coup leader in the Sledgehammer plot, the retired Gen Cetin Dogan, rejected the allegations. Before he entered the court building yesterday, Gen Dogan said the prosecution had manipulated documents in order to build the case against him and the other suspects, including Ozden Ornek and Halil Ibrahim Firtina, the former commanders of Turkey's navy and air force.
"I have been saying from the start they have been doing copy and paste," Gen Dogan said about the prosecution. He has been arguing that he conducted a military seminar in 2003 dealing with possible threats by Greece and by Islamist extremists as the head of the prestigious First Army at the time. He accuses prosecutors of twisting documents to make them look like a coup plan. Other critics have also spoken of serious inconsistencies in the charge sheets. In one example, prosecutors are said to have accused the plotters of planning to take control of key installations in Istanbul that either did not exist or had different names in 2003.
Government opponents say the Erdogan government uses investigations against former and serving officers in an attempt to destroy the reputation of the armed forces and to silence critics. Repeated coup allegations and setbacks in the fight against Kurdish rebels have severely damaged the military's prestige. A series of political reforms, including a constitutional referendum in September, has stripped the generals of much of their former political power.
The judge who was scheduled to hear the Sledgehammer case was transferred to another post only days before the start of the trial, triggering fresh allegations of government interference. But Ankara has said it had nothing to do with the decision, which had been taken by an independent oversight body.
Gen Dogan said he would not challenge the credibility of the new presiding judge but would concentrate on exposing what he sees as weaknesses and fabrications of the prosecution. "Please keep watching the trial," he told the media. "This trial has no legal basis." Gen Dogan insisted that he was "not a man of coups".
The Sledgehammer plan, like several other coup plots, was first published by the daily Taraf, which has made a name for itself by taking on the military. In many cases, Taraf was given confidential documents by members of the armed forces who were concerned about the alleged coup preparations.
Mr Kardas, the former military prosecutor, said the fact that at least part of the information leading to trials like the one yesterday came from within the ranks of the military was "a healthy thing" for the country. "It means they think that coups are fascism. It is the duty of every citizen to alert the authorities in a case like this," he said.